This week you have been teaching Art History in London’s museums. It’s an annual Summer Job that you have been doing for over 10 years now. It’s strange, to spend the academic term time involved with contemporary art and artists and then switch into Historical mode for the summer each year.
It’s hard work, like all teaching, the responsibility for both your students and your subject make it tiring, even if, while you are in the full flow of teaching, you seem to acquire some magical energy, enthusiasm and inspiration.
To take a break, last weekend you managed to get £5 cancellation tickets to see Shakespeare’s ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’ at The Globe Theatre. About half way through the performance you got that feeling you always get when you watch Shakespeare, your eyes grew damp and you wondered why you didn’t spend your whole life with Shakespeare. Is there any better art and artist, really?
The current production, directed by Emma Rice is a multicultural whirlwind of contemporary relevance and reference. The Indian element in the plot is amplified by an Indian actress playing Hermia. A black actor plays Demetrius, white English actors dominate most of the parts, but Helena is played by a young man who looks and sounds Italian-American and plays the part as gay, thus culminating in a gay marriage between Helena and Demetrius.
The music and choreography are largely built around (and ‘star’) a sitar, played by an Indian musician who is ever-present at the centre of the ‘minstrel’s gallery’. Her riffs are augmented and supported by elements of blues, jazz, funk, pop, soul and hip-hop. There are briefs outbursts of Bowie and Beyonce inthe show too. Costumes are mostly contemporary too, so Hermia sleeping in the forest becomes a girl at Glastonbury festival in cool pyjamas and Hunter wellies.
But the mystical magic of the 16th century’s very own ‘multiculture’ – in which reason and imagination; the varying worlds of a ducal court, fairyland, and the realm of artisans- mixes with comic results and is never compromised by all this modernity, rather it is enhanced. Consider, for example, Puck’s trainers glittering and lighting up as the fairy promises to circle the globe in minutes.
Surely Aristotle was right to claim that theatre cleans the soul of both individual and community, well, effective theatre at least. You are a BIG fan of cinema and its history, and yet words and ideas, weighted by the worldly influence of the theatre’s special multi-dimensional reality often convinces you that theatre is the ultimate art, and with the greatest claim to encompass all the other arts.
Today’s constant, daily drip of frankly, literally ‘disgusting’ news tells you that our society is everywhere in danger of failing. The pope this week said the world is ‘at war’ and laid the blame, not on religion but on money and power. But spending time in history and with history – whether it looking at a pampered aristocrat’s voluminous writing desk, or gold and enameled snuff box, or at Catherine The Great’s Sevres porcelain, a painting of a 19th century barmaid, or at an anti-fascist photomontage, or Joseph Beuys’ blackboards, or once again at Shakespeare’s historic and enduring wordplay, history is always a resource, an event, an opportunity within which you can glean valuable lessons, find other forms, and alternatives that might just guide us now, as we come, in our own time and in our own way, to occupy and take responsibility for our particular and temporary occupation of ‘The Globe’.
The Globe Theatres’ stage this week was pulsating with difference. But, glancing around, the audience looked mainly white, and probably mainly made up of privileged tourists. You are sure that The Globe has rich and effective policies and departments that broaden its audience and gets all kinds of new communities and audiences involved with Shakespeare, and this week’s progressive, creative interpretation of something of such traditional and canonic value, seems to point – given our current political and social disasters- to possible solutions to today’s social ills.
Very soon after he was first elected Conservative (ex-) Prime Minister David Cameron gave a right-Wing speech in Europe claiming that ‘multiculture is dead’, when surely, clearly it has always been alive and always will be. Shakespeare proves it. Furthermore, we need politicians, and not just artists and arts organisations, to constantly increase and encourage multiculture not just as an idea or vision but as an inescapable, undeniable reality.
Far from trying to repress or deny, hide or kill-off something so natural, so immanent, so important, and so productive, we need to amplify and renew this now much abused term, perhaps by referring to an ‘ultra-multi-culture’ – a word that sprang to mind unbidden, sometime this week, after leaving the theatre and working in London’s unequalled collection of museum collections.